Geoffrey Cowley

Stories by Geoffrey Cowley

  • THE SKIN-CANCER SCARE

    "The president has cancer" is always an arresting phrase. But by the time we got confirmation of Bill Clinton's case last week, he had already been cured. Doctors scraped a suspicious lesion from the president's back during his annual physical Jan. 12, and tests later revealed it was a basal-cell carcinoma. Though it qualifies as a malignancy, BCC is nearly as common as gray hair--and far more treatable. Recognized early, it leaves nothing but a small scar to remind you of the sun's more serious hazards. Unfortunately, BCC is on the rise in this country, and so are its deadlier cousins.Skin cancer typically affects people over 50, but the pattern is starting to change. "We used to see [BCCs] mainly in old people," says Dr. Martin Weinstock, the Brown University dermatologist who heads the American Cancer Society's skin-cancer advisory group. "Now we're seeing them in people in their 20s and 30s." Sun exposure is a key risk factor for all three of the leading skin cancers--BCC,...
  • THE ULTIMATE DIET PLAN

    This just in: those high-fat, low-carb diets really work! So do those low-fat, high-carb diets! You really can lose weight on the chocolate-eclair plan! The catch is, you have to eat less.Thus concludes a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Faced with a growing obesity epidemic--and an onslaught of fad diets that restrict some type of food--the agency assembled an expert panel to review the evidence on diet and weight. Its findings, released in summary form last week, reaffirm what most obesity experts have maintained all along. As the report's authors put it, "Caloric balance (calories in vs. calories out), rather than macronutrient composition, is the major determinant of weight loss." If you're slimming down on a diet of bacon and butter, it's not because you've reset your metabolism, as some diet gurus would claim. The truth is, people on low-carb diets average only 1,414 calories a day, whereas the typical American downs 2,200.The question is whether there are...
  • Understanding Autism

    More Kids Than Ever Are Facing The Challenge Of 'Mindblindness.' The Causes Are Still A Mystery, But Research Is Offering New Clues To How The Brain Works.
  • Right Off The Shelf

    The patient was well aware of her cholesterol problem when she showed up a few weeks ago to see Dr. Sidney Smith in Chapel Hill, N.C. In fact, she had already treated it. By taking Cholestin, a product based on a natural form of the cholesterol inhibitor lovastatin, the woman had reduced her count from an alarming 300 to just over 200--and she'd done it without a prescription. Smith was pleased to see what she'd accomplished, but the episode left him puzzled. Why, he wondered, are well-established cholesterol medications sold by prescription only, when relatively untested versions of the same compounds are available over the counter? Do products like Cholestin need more regulation? Or do drugs like Mevacor and Pravachol need less?As Americans turn increasingly to self-care, the medical establishment is warming up to option two. Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb, the drug giants that make Mevacor and Pravachol, are now seeking clearance to sell them like Band-Aids or Alka-Seltzer on...
  • Generation XXL

    Childhood Obesity Now Threatens One In Three Kids With Long-Term Health Problems, And The Crisis Is Growing.
  • The New War On Parkinson's

    An Explosion Of Research, Aided By The Candor And Energy Of Michael J. Fox, Is Changing The Struggle Against This Brain Disease, And Giving Hope To A Million Americans.
  • Alzheimer's Unlocking The Mystery

    The Longer We Live, The More Likely We Are To Contract This Devastating Disease. But Recent Discoveries Are Bringing Scientists Closer Than Ever To A Cure.
  • Critical Condition

    Sandi Bergevin has a terrific internist, and she adores the ophthalmologist who has treated her glaucoma for the past 15 years. "It takes a long time to build up the trust," she says. "I feel he's taking care of me and is not going to let anything happen to me." But the 55-year-old hospital worker is not so sure about her HMO. Because its vision plan stipulates only three office visits a year, getting the care she needs usually involves a long series of appeals. And she worries constantly that things could get worse. Not long ago she learned that her employer is planning to switch to a different health plan--one that may not even do business with the doctors she knows and trusts. And nothing she hears about HMOs reassures her. "You hear the horror stories about when they let people die and stuff," she says. "It just blows your mind."Welcome to HMO hell. According to a new poll--commissioned by the Discovery Health Channel and carried out in conjunction with NEWSWEEK--61 percent are ...
  • Anatomy Of An Outbreak

    As it turns out, it wasn't the ailing old folks who heralded the arrival of a deadly new contagion in New York this summer. By the time aging patients began languishing in Flushing Hospital--confused, racked by fever, weak to the point of paralysis--crows had been dying for weeks. Queens residents had been calling city wildlife manager Joseph Pane to say that birds with no visible wounds were hobbling around shaky and disoriented. Dr. Tracey McNamara of the Wildlife Conservation Society had heard similar reports from the neighborhoods surrounding the Bronx Zoo, where she works as a pathologist. And keepers were finding crow carcasses on the zoo grounds. "It was unusual to have a single species die off like that," McNamara recalls. "Something was obviously going on."That something, we now know, was a form of viral encephalitis never before seen in the Western Hemisphere. After a month of false starts, researchers have now linked New York's strange afflictions--both human and avian-...
  • Mad About Metabolife

    So you're feeling a little thick around the middle and you've heard enough about abstinence and exercise. Wouldn't it be nice if you could pop a pill, stretch out in the BarcaLounger and incinerate calories like a long-distance runner? That's the idea behind a hot herbal supplement called Metabolife 356. Americans are downing it like candy, and some are claiming remarkable results. "Metabolife has been absolutely amazing for me," says 43-year-old Anna Hamersly of Woodbridge, Ill. Hamersly says she weighed about 270 pounds when she started using the product last year. She's now down to 200--and expecting to drop an additional 20 pounds by New Year's. "I feel like a new person," she says.Launched four years ago by a former San Diego cop with no formal medical training, Metabolife is now one of America's best-selling herbal products. Enthusiasts peddle it from living rooms and kiosks, as well as retail shops. And Metabolife International, the privately held company that produces the...
  • Cancer Contagion

    Humans are not the only creatures plagued by breast cancer. Mice get it too--and as scientists discovered several decades ago, they get it from a virus. The so-called mouse mammary tumor virus (MMTV) spreads from mothers to their offspring through breast milk. It integrates its genes permanently into the chromosomes of the cells it infects. And when the viral genes are activated, they can cause host cells to divide uncontrollably. Could something similar be happening in people? There is no evidence that breast-fed babies become cancer-prone adults, yet recent studies suggest that viruses may play some role in human breast cancer. Two American teams have recently found evidence of an MMTV-like virus in human breast tumors. And a new report from France suggests that the Epstein-Barr virus--a germ already linked to several human cancers--may play a role in breast cancer as well.Most of us contract Epstein-Barr during childhood and carry it for life without ever suffering symptoms. But...
  • So, How's Your Health?

    Has the 20th century been good for our health? Of course it has, you say. Vaccines, antibiotics and improved living conditions have tamed such killers such as smallpox and diphtheria. Infant mortality has dropped steadily since the early 1900s, as has women's risk of dying in childbirth. Deaths from stomach cancer have fallen by 90 percent since the 1930s, when we started using refrigerators instead of salt and smoke to preserve food. And since the advent of the Pap smear, deaths from cervical cancer have fallenby 75 percent. Together these achievements have had a huge impact on the length and quality of our lives. Average life expectancy, just 47 years for a child born at the turn of the century, now stands at 74 years for males and 79 years for females.If only that were the whole story. The irony is that the comforts we've attained during the 20th century have spawned a new generation of health hazards. "What we've done," says Dr. William Dietz of the Centers for Disease Control...
  • Outsmarting Alzheimer's

    It's hard to think of an illness more devastating, or less treatable, than Alzheimer's. It afflicts 4 million Americans--one in 10 of those over 65, nearly half of those over 85--and the toll is rising as the population ages. Despite two decades of intensive research, no one knows quite how the brain-killing condition arises, let alone how to arrest it. Small wonder, then, that a preliminary study published in last week's Nature is provoking such excitement. Researchers at Elan Pharmaceuticals of South San Francisco showed that--in mice, at least--an experimental vaccine can prevent and even reverse some of the brain lesions that are hallmarks of Alzheimer's. The vaccine may yet prove worthless, or even harmful, in people. But the possibilities it raises are dazzling.The basic idea is simple. Alzheimer's disease involves a buildup of so-called amyloid plaques within critical regions of the brain. No one knows just how these sticky protein deposits affect mental function, but they're...
  • Are Stogies Safer Than Cigarettes?

    WE ALL KNOW the rap on cigarettes: they're addictive, they kill you and they stink. There's no question that cigars smell bad, but do they cause addiction and death? Researchers haven't amassed a lot of data on those issues. After all, Americans consume only 4.6 billion cigars each year, compared with 470 billion cigarettes. Since cigar packages say nothing about health hazards, and cigar smokers don't usually inhale, the dangers may seem negligible. But the truth is, stogies kill. ""We can't say exactly how many deaths are attributable to cigars,'' says Michael Erickson, head of the smoking-and-health office at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ""But tobacco smoke is tobacco smoke. There's no safe level of exposure to a carcinogen.'' ...
  • Good News For Boomers

    AS SENIOR MEMBERS OF the baby-boom generation began turning 50 this year, some of the men no doubt discovered that a stop at the urinal wasn't what it used to be. Roughly a third of American males over 50 suffer from prostate enlargement (officially benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH). Though less serious than the prostate cancer that killed Timothy Leary last spring, BPH can turn urination into an agonizing round-the-clock task. Drug treatment brings only modest relief--and though surgery is more effective, it's also costly, painful and fraught with possible side effects. But a new procedure called TUNA (for transurethral needle ablation) should brighten the picture in the coming year. Using a device developed by Vidamed of Menlo Park, Calif., doctors can now shrink a man's prostate without putting him in the hospital. The 45-minute procedure requires only a local anesthetic. It costs roughly half as much as surgery. And because it's less invasive, it's also less risky. Dr....
  • Flunk The Gene Test And Lose Your Insurance

    JAMIE STEPHENSON HAS SEEN firsthand what modern genetic science can do for a family. When her son David was 2 years old, a pediatrician noticed developental delays and suspected fragile X syndrome, a hereditary form of mental retardation. A lab test confirmed the diagnosis, and the Stephensons spent several years learning to live with it. When David was 6, he visited a neurologist, who scribbled "fragile X" on an insurance-company claim form. The company responded promptly--by canceling coverage for the entire family of six. There is no medical treatment for fragile X, and none of David's siblings had been diagnosed with the condition. "The company didn't care," Stephenson says. "They just saw a positive genetic test and said, "You're out'." ...
  • Targeting A Deadly Scrap Of Genetic Code

    NINETEEN NINETY-SIX MAY GO down as the year AIDS treatment came of age. By combining new drugs called protease inhibitors with old workhorses like AZT, desperately ill patients are achieving miraculous remissions. Newly infected patients are holding HIV at exceedingly low levels in their bloodstreams. And researchers who once dreamed of turning HIV infection from a death sentence into a manageable condition now muse about clearing the virus entirely from people's bodies. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean the fight is over. The wondrous new drug combinations can be toxic, unwieldy and ineffective. And because they're so new, no one knows how long their best effects will last. ""We may be winning the battle,'' says Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, ""but we have a long way to go to prove that.'' ...
  • The Roots Of Good And Evil

    IT'S A LAZY AFTERNOON IN LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga., and everything should be going Jimoh's way. As the top-ranking male in a group of 20 chimpanzees maintained by the Yerkes Primate Research Center, this muscular, black-haired 29-year-old is every female's favorite escort. And today Peony, one of his own favorites, has a red swelling on her rump, signaling a period of sexual readiness. As the rest of the group lounges, Jimoh sidles up to her, sporting an erection, and the two are briefly united. But when a pair of youngsters sense they're missing out on some fun, they bound over to throw dirt and pound on the amorous couple. Jimoh could throttle the punks, but the alpha male withdraws with a look of calm resignation and waits for a more auspicious moment to mate. "He has to be very tolerant of the juveniles," explains primatologist Frans de Waal. "He can't afford to alienate their moms." ...
  • Terminal Care: Too Painful, Too Prolonged

    Hazel welch was 92, severely disabled and living in a Connecticut nursing home when a perforated stomach ulcer landed her in the emergency room at Yale-New Haven Hospital. The physician on call, Dr. Sherwin Nuland, proposed emergency surgery to repair her exploded digestive tract. To his surprise, she refused, explaining that she had already outlived her friends and relatives, and that 92 years on this planet was quite long enough anyway. Her odds of surviving the operation were just one in three, but as Nuland recounts in his 1993 book, "How We Die," the need to intervene seemed obvious. So he pressured her, she gave in and he operated. She survived for a few pain-filled weeks, then died of a massive stroke. "Although my intentions were only to serve. . . her welfare, I was guilty of the worst sort of paternalism," Nuland reflects. "l had won out over [the ulcer] but lost the greater battle of humane care." ...
  • Sex, Lies And Garlic

    KUDZU. CAT'S CLAW. Kava Kava. Ginkgo biloba. Probably you've never heard of them, but if current trends continue, these and other natural remedies will soon overtake the shelf above your stove. Even before the melatonin craze struck, the market for herbs and other dietary supplements was exploding. "I've never seen the momentum for the industry as strong as it is right now," says William Watts, president of GNC Corp., which has opened a new health store nearly every day for the last three years and this year expects sales of $1 billion. The boom isn't confined to specialty stores: like amaretto-flavored coffee beans, once obscure natural health aids are now showing up in drugstores, supermarkets and discount chains. ...
  • A Clue To Cancer

    Hernan Acevedo is not a big name in cancer research. From his laboratory at Pittsburgh's Allegheny-Sing-er Research Institute, the 70-year-old biochemist has spent two decades pursuing the eccentric notion that all malignancies are the work of a single hormone called hCG, or human chorionic gonadotropin. Healthy adult cells are typically free of hCG. But developing embryos seem to use it to shield themselves from immune attack, and Acevedo believes malignant tumors use it for the same purpose. Other scientists haven't paid much attention to his work, but it's getting harder and harder to ignore. This week the journal Cancer is publishing the strongest evidence to date that, as Acevedo puts it, "the hormone that gives us life also kills us." And some clinicians are now exploring the possibility that a vaccine against hCG will provide a new weapon against tumors. "I don't think [the anti-hCG vaccine] is nirvana," says Stanford-based immunologist Edwin Rock. "But in terms of...
  • Critical Mass

    If you can't get a grip on a problem, it's sometimes convenient just to stop letting it bother you. When the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. published its famous height-weight chart in 1959, a woman standing 5 feet 5 inches was supposed to weigh between 111 and 142 pounds. Today's government guidelines, tailored to a fatter population, tell the same woman that 162 pounds is acceptable if she's at least 35 years old. But last week brought stark evidence that our accommodation has come at a cost. In a study of more than 100,000 nurses, researchers at Harvard Medical School and Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital found that women weighing at least 15 percent less than average were the least likely to die prematurely, and that death rates rose steadily with increasing heft even in women who weren't officially obese. The study concludes that weight-related illnesses now kill 300,000 Americans a year, placing fat second only to smoking as a cause of preventable death. And the findings...
  • Can Fat Cure Epilepsy?

    One morning in March 1993, film producer Jim Abrahams ("Airplane," "Naked Gun") was pushing his 1-year-old son, Charlie, in the swing at their Santa Monica, Calif., home when the boy's head dropped suddenly and his right arm jerked skyward. Within weeks the child was suffering epileptic seizures-- 30 to 40 a day--and his parents were searching desperately for help. They tried drugs like phenyl barbital and Dilantin. They tried homeopathy, faith healing and brain surgery. But the seizures continued. Eight months and $100,000 later, Abrahams heard about the "ketogenic diet," a therapy based on fasting and extremely high-fat meals. The leading proponent is Dr. John Freeman, a pediatric neurologist at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, so the Abrahamses headed for Baltimore over Thanksgiving to try it. By Christmas, the child was off drugs and seizure-free. Nearly two years later, he still is.Many experts remain skeptical--but for the 56,000 American kids whose epilepsy doesn't...
  • Hiv's Raw Aggression

    For such a deadly virus, hiv has always seemed a rather sluggish one. Infected people can go a decade or more without showing symptoms, so experts have reasoned that the bug must lie dormant in the cells it infects until some unknown crisis pushes it into action. Two new studies have now radically changed the picture, showing that HIV is not a subtle intruder but a rabid aggressor that battles the body from the first day of infection. The discovery -- published in the journal Nature by researchers at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and at New York's Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center -- won't produce new treatments right away. But as Nature's editors boasted in a statement last week, it "completely changes our understanding of what's going on." ...
  • What's High Cholesterol?

    You've probably had a cholesterol test. And if your total cholesterol level approached 240, you were no doubt warned to bring it down through diet or drugs. That's usually sound advice, but two new studies suggest the need for subtler strategies to ward off heart disease. ...
  • A Small Bug With A Big Appetite

    At least 75 different bacteria belong to the family known as Group A streptococcus. Some of them colonize our tissues without making trouble; others cause conditions ranging from sore throats to scarlet fever. "Necrotizing fasciitis," the galloping gangrene that ran away with the media's imagination last week, is just one gruesome manifestation of a particulary virulent strain. Invasive, life-threatenIng strep infections are rare, even among people with weakened immune systems, but anyone can be stricken. And although antibiotics remain a potent weapon, 10 to 20 percent of all sufferers die, "Sometimes you make the right diagnosis and give the right drug," says Dr. Stanley Yancovitz, an infectious-disease specialist at New York's Beth Israel Medical Center, "but you don't get there fast enough." ...
  • The Secrets Of A Cancer Cell's Success

    JUST AS CHEMISTS ARE beginning to understand how substances in food prevent cancers from forming, other researchers are bearing down on the mechanics of malignancy itself In a seminal new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S. and Canadian researchers reported that cells from human tumors produce an "immortalizing enzyme" called telomerase (pronounced tel-AH-mer-ace). The discovery won't affect clinical practice any time soon, but it suggests a whole new approach to cancer treatment. If telomerase proves as important as it now appears, curing cancer could be as simple-or as complicated-as blocking the enzyme's effect. ...
  • Are Supplements Still Worth Taking?

    FOR MILLIONS OF HEALTH-CONSCIOUS Americans, antioxidant vitamins are a way of life. Revered for their power to sub-due "free radicals"the molecular vandals that erode our youth, harden our arteries and turn our cells cancerous-antioxidant supplements have sold wildly in recent years. In 1993 alone, store sales of vitamin E supplements grew by 39 percent (to $123 million), while beta-carotene sales soared by 31 percent (to $22 million) and vitamin C sales rose 10 percent (to $117 million). The latest intelligence on such pills, reported in last week's New England Journal of Medicine, is sure to confuse, even frighten, some devotees. After treating 29,000 male Finnish smokers with vitamin E and beta carotene for five to eight years, researchers concluded that the supplements "may actually have harmful as well as beneficial effects." But the findings don't prove that supplements are worthless or dangerous. The lesson is simply that pills are no substitute for common sense. ...
  • Twentieth-Century Plagues

    THE LATEST DISCOURAGING REPORT about AIDS treatment came last week with the publication in the British journal Lancet of a major Anglo-French study on the drug AZT The so-called Concorde trial (whose preliminary results were announced a year ago) followed 1,749 people who were HIV-positive but had no symptoms of illness. After a year, subjects on AZT were doing better than those who got a placebo, but after three years, there was no benefit from the drug: 18 percent of both groups had developed AIDS symptoms. And in terms of mortality, those on AZT fared slightly worse; 8 percent had died, compared with 6 percent of the placebo group. The study will continue for another 15 months. ...